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The Right Doll at the Right Time or Making the Best of Barbie.

Posted Aug 26 2008 11:36pm

I’m writing a series of posts of lists of The Best Toys for Christmas from a Not-Quite-Crunchy perspective. I did blocks last week. Next week I’ll do dolls…but, I’m going to start with a little background today.


One of the fun things about blogging is the opportunity to do some research and gain insight into different issues. This week I spent a bit of time reading expert opinions on doll play, the purpose it serves developmentally and what dolls to buy…when.

And boy…WHEN seems to be the whole “Barbie” issue even more than the body image one!

But, let’s start back at the beginning. Child development experts tend to agree that doll play serves three main purposes in the growing child.

1. For the very young doll play gives children a chance to imitate mothering. This is of course the activity, at this age, with which they are most familiar…being mothered. Little girls (and some boys, sometimes) will cuddle, rock, feed and bathe a doll. This starts fairly early and continues on through the pre-school years. “Baby dolls” – get it?

2. At around 3 or a little earlier, children of both sexes start to act out stories with dolls or action figures (which in the toy industry we say is “boy” for doll.) This is the point where tiny figures (Flexi dolls, small animals, small figures) are used – girls tend to act out home and community related scenes ( hence the use of dollhouses), boys focus more on stories that take place out of the home ( hence the use of pirate ships/castles/fire stations). This relates to what child development experts say is the “community building” source of girl power and the “rescuer /avenger source of boy power.

3. Finally dolls help children form identity by letting them try on different ones (aspirational play). At earlier ages 3-6 this may be trying on for size different children’s identities (historical, geographical) as they get a bit older ( 9-10+), this turns into trying on adult identities. This is where “fashion dolls” supposedly come in – (so why is it we give them to 3-year-olds?)


So, while we fuss about Barbie and her body image and moan the predominance of Bratz and their trampy image…part of the issue is to whom we are giving these dolls. Developmentally, girls are not really ready for adult dolls to dress up and play act being a grown up.


…a Barbie doll is not an appropriate doll for a young child. …. young children are not really able to dress and groom them, and the dolls offer a role model of pseudo-sexiness and external glamour that is not particularly nourishing to a little child who is very much in the process of taking in-internalizing through example-what it is to be a human being.

As you may remember from your childhood when Barbies were something attained at 8 or 9…playing Barbie’s often meant sitting and taking clothes on and off while telling a story in your head. …based on experience…can’t get much of a story going when you are 3…can you?

Instead, up to 4 years of age, girls would be better served by playing with and collecting baby dolls, with a variety of clothes and accessories. (Actually, purists would recommend making dolls or buying Waldorf dolls at this age – but let’s just take baby steps.)

At 3 or 4 a dollhouse, school bus, castle (if you believe in “princess play” – but that’s another story) etc. meets the developmental need to ‘tell stories. There are a variety of small figures from plastic Mega Block and Fischer Price to bendable fabric people and even wooden craft figures.) Small plastic or wooden animals work for this age too.( No? Really? I’ve never seen a little girl play obsessively with My Little Pony and Pet Shop toys)

Finally, when a child reaches 9 or 10, they may be ready to start dressing and undressing a doll and fantasizing about being an adult. Fashion dolls like Barbie and Bratz may still not be the best choice. But, should Barbie be introduced at the right time (i.e. after the child has had the opportunity to develop a healthy body image) in a limited way (focusing on those dolls and those accessories that promote positive images) perhaps little harm is done.

When Barbie was introduced in 1959, mothers (OK- pre-feminist mothers) welcomed the introduction of a doll for their 9 and 10-year-olds. Today, many mothers, and experts say, rightly, have reservations about their 3-year-olds playing with them.

Can a parent do without Barbie? Well. Some do and it’s not always easy. Most not-quite-crunchy parents seem to delay and select. Delay as in put off actually buying a Barbie until a more appropriate age…at least 7 or 8. Select as in carefully choose which Barbies she receives.

This of course means broadcasting “NO BARBIES, please” to friends and relatives. This quite frankly is the tough part. Staying out of toy stores that stock Barbie; keeping commercial TV viewing limited; and arranging play dates with like-minded parents will do the rest.


What strategies do you use? What issues do you face? I wrote this post with research and lots of input from friends with daughters. What do you think?

I'll publish a list of The Best Toys for Christmas - dolls for every age (IMH "not-quite crunchy" O) next week and link back here.

Input welcome!



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